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Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Mythic Fantasy


Sub-genres of fantasy literature are manifold and multiform, each pursuing and providing a different central idea around which a magical, marvelous world is built. However, to truly understand what each sub-genre entails, one must first look into what fantasy itself is as a genre/type of literature. This series of articles will begin with an overview of most commonly referenced theories of fantasy and the fantastic, and will then move on to explore and analyze fantasy’s most prominent sub-genres.

Theory of Fantasy Literature 101 is divided into six chapters including:

1. What is Fantasy?

2. On Mythic Fantasy

3. On Epic Fantasy

4. On Magical Realism

5. On Grim-dark Fantasy

6. On Sword & Sorcery

Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Mythic Fantasy

Predating any and all theories of the fantastic, mythical tales introduce the idea of otherworldly forces affecting consensus reality. These tales stem from a tradition of oral presentation where stories were not written and edited with specific audiences in mind, but were simply presented at social gatherings. On the nature of myth, American writer and expert in comparative mythology and religion Joseph Campbell (2004) writes:

It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth (p. 60).

In a sense, mythologies were never simply tales: they always contained within them thoughts and musings that sought to discover something new about the human condition. That novelty was presented through gods, monsters, and other supernatural elements, but that does not mean that those tales lost contact with reality. There exists a difficulty in understanding mythic narratives today because our society is so far removed from the ancient state of mind. Picture a world in which the only safe places are human settlements. Around them exists an unknown wilderness into which the common man will never venture. This same common man has only one means of experiencing said wilderness remotely: through campfire tales. This logic also extends to all Earthly phenomena that could not be explained in those days – instead of the rational, the mythic became the primary method of deciphering the world.

Campbell presents the idea of the monomyth (a term he borrows from James Joyce) which encapsulates the universality of mythic experiences throughout human history. This concept functions similarly to Jung’s (2005) archetypes which, in simplified terms, mark collective images of the unconscious that are present and recognizable in worldwide cultures despite the fact that those cultures had no contact with one another. It is in this space that mythic fantasy functions, for works of mythology are fundamental reference points for many aspects of culture – no cultural phenomenon draws on mythology more than fantasy. Calling attention to the monomyth and the common archetypes of the collective unconscious serves the purpose of recognizing the shared traits of all mythologies: much of what one says about Greek mythology can easily be applied to all others.

Note: The myriad mythological gods were all once considered real - a key difference between them and other fantastical characters (Gods of Olympus, Romano, 1354).